You’ll need a boat to attend this mystery dinner party

Mystery dinner dock party Photo by Liam Mogan

A mystery dinner, with boats going all over to multiple cottages: in this (pre-coronavirus) tradition, neighbours become friends, and nobody leaves hungry 

I’m reminded of Lord Ronald in Stephen Leacock’s story. But unlike Lord Ronald, who flung himself upon his horse, 40 or so cottagers fling themselves into their boats and drive madly off in all directions. Not because they’re angry, but because they’re hungry.

It happens once a year, every summer, in one of the most complicated dinner parties imaginable. Everybody attends and virtually everybody hosts, which means everybody has to navigate the perilous shoals of this water-access Georgian Bay community near MacTier, Ont. I grab my PFD and jump in the boat that’s been assigned to take me to the next stop on the watery route: Appetizers, part two, the second of four stages.

Appetizers, part one has already happened, co-hosted by Richard Crouch and Jamie Crichton at Jamie and Beth Hartung’s cottage. More than a dozen boats crowded in, rafting off one another. This is always the starting point—at 4 p.m. sharp—and the only place where everyone will come together. Richard watches the arrival from the big front deck. He’s the architect of the Woods Bay Travelling Mystery Dinner, but Jamie and Beth have a larger deck, so the party begins here—unless the weather’s bad, in which case it moves to Richard’s place next door. He can accommodate more people indoors.

Devilled eggs
Photo by Liam Mogan

People stand around and mingle in the bright afternoon sunshine, grabbing food from the impressive appetizer smorgasbord—today, it includes shrimp; devilled eggs; skewers of mozzarella, fresh basil, and tomatoes; and a yummy-looking börek roll that I have my eye on—set up on a table in the cool shade of an umbrella. Maestro Richard hands each participant a sheet of paper that tells them which other two cottages they’ll call on and who they will host at their own place. “It’s a kind of crazy spreadsheet that I run,” says Richard, who started the dinner eight years ago as a community-building event. And, indeed, the logistics are daunting. There are four stages, including the opening cocktail party. This year, 38 participants signed up, mostly couples. Among them, Richard has organized 17 host cottages to cover the three remaining stages of the evening—two more appetizer stops and dessert. There is no official “main course,” but by the end of the evening, nobody will be hungry, either.

The cottage book club

When you are not hosting, you are a guest. This is the “driving madly in all directions” part, because there are several host cottages for each stage and multiple sets of guests. Each stage lasts exactly one hour, 15 minutes. Then the groups split up, and you move on to your next host. You might meet the same people there, but it’s just as likely that you’ll be dining with strangers. Richard says that’s his goal, to help people get to know one another. However, not even Richard knows all the participants. One year, he inadvertently had a cottager host her own brother. “They had different last names,” he says ruefully.

A mere three days before the event, Richard gave them their food assignments: appetizers or dessert. I feel like an interloper. All I have to do is eat (tough job, and all…). The sheet Richard hands me at Stage 1 tells me the three cottages that I will visit as a Mystery Dinner guest. At 5:15, we troop back down to Jamie and Beth’s dock and, with much anticipation and hilarity, cast off the web of dock lines.

Watermelon and grapes
Photo by Liam Mogan

I am headed to David and Karin Barton’s, a few minutes away, where I meet my hosts and two other couples. A former professor and a lecturer, David and Karin bought their cottage when they retired five years ago. Now they live here full time in the summer. They spend winters in the Bahamas, which is a happy occurrence for us because the spread on the dining table includes Karin’s hot phyllo lobster tarts—they caught the spiny lobster and transported it frozen from their winter getaway—along with mackerel paté, also caught and smoked by David in the Bahamas. Their daughter Gwyneth and Gwyneth’s friend Lizz, who are up for a few days, have contributed dumplings they made with ground pork and chanterelle and black trumpet mushrooms they foraged in the woods behind the cottage.

With no other family in Canada, Karin says that the Woods Bay community is especially important to them. In fact, finding community is important for all the islanders, many of whom are off the grid. They rely on one another for both social engagement and emergency backup: a couple of weekends after the Travelling Dinner, for example, the Woods Bay Community Association conducted its Fire Pump Seminar. “It’s nice, when you’re isolated, that you know your neighbours, because it makes you feel more connected and more protected, and you can exchange information,” Karin says. “It means you’re more aware of what’s going on, and what might become a problem.”

Cocktails on the deck
Photo by Liam Mogan

At 6:30, I climb into another boat, and we’re off to Stage 3: Dan Purdon and Marsha McLean’s cottage, which they co-own with Dan’s brother and his wife. The sun is getting lower in the sky, and its sloping rays light the granite-and-pine landscape with a soft, golden glow. Woods Bay disappears behind us, and the boat skims north into Blackstone Harbour.

Woods Bay and Blackstone are part of the Township of the Archipelago, which extends nearly 100 km north to Charles Inlet and the Naiscoot River, south of Britt, and encompasses much of Georgian Bay’s exquisite Thirty Thousand Islands. Much of the area is undeveloped, and a large part is Crown land. In this southern portion of the Archipelago, 83 per cent of the mainland and 70 per cent of the islands remain in the public domain, including the cottagers’ treasured Massasauga Provincial Park.

Georgian Bay rocks
Photo by Liam Mogan

Dan Purdon’s father fell in love with the area and bought property in 1954 after a Crown release of land. “My dad had two weeks’ holidays,” Dan says. “One was for hunting, and one was for the cottage.” Now there are three Purdon family cottages on the bay, shared by six siblings. Dan’s father died in 2004, but Dan’s 92-year-old mother was out to his sister’s place just the day before.

These cottagers share a deep attachment to the region and its history—both natural and otherwise. On an earlier boat tour of the area, we passed several old fishing lodges that have been turned into cottages. The Friends of the Massasauga Park, a volunteer charitable organization that includes Woods Bay cottagers, is raising money to restore Calhoun Lodge, built in the late 1930s and early ’40s and now publicly owned. Some say that it’s haunted by a former caretaker who took his life there. They say that on calm nights, you can hear him playing his fiddle and walking through the cabins.

If the cottagers are concerned about nocturnal apparitions, they don’t mention it. Talk at Dan and Marsha’s place has turned to a real-life and somewhat large ursine sighting on Healey Lake Road, the lone route from MacTier to Moon River Marine, on the mainland, where the water-access cottagers dock their boats. Over Marsha’s strawberry daiquiris and fresh make-your-own spring rolls, Dan is trying to convince Sarah Bentley-Taylor to join a regular cycling party on the paved but twisty road. She’s worried about the bear and her cubs.

“You only need to worry if you’re the slowest one,” he points out.

“Well, I am,” Sarah says. “That’s the problem.”

Of course, bears aren’t unusual in cottage country. Gary and Karen Phillips had a bear hide on one wall of the circa 1905 lodge they lovingly restored and where they lived full time in the summer, until they sold it recently after purchasing another cottage nearby. Karen is a veteran of the Travelling Dinners and has good advice for newbies: “Don’t overthink it, and keep it simple.” She and Gary are among the Stage 3 hosts. This year, her menu includes cold shrimp and salsa; skewers of fresh peppers, tomatoes, and bocconcini; and a big salad. Her dishes are inspired by her large, raised vegetable garden which produces lettuces, squash, cabbage, peas, beans, peppers, cucumbers, and zucchini—a benefit of living at the cottage all summer.

Stairs down to the water
Photo by Liam Mogan

At 7:45, our group disperses from Dan and Marsha’s, and I am off to my final destination: dessert, at the cottage of Pam Graham and Derek Johnston. The sweet treats include a truly decadent chocolate torte; a melt-in-your-mouth lemon tart; and fresh berries with a side of Cointreau, maple syrup, and whipped cream. Derek jokes that he’ll kick us out if we stay too long. At least, I think he is joking. This is the problem for dessert hosts: it’s the final stage, and people tend to stay. On the other hand, some cottagers request to host the dessert stage, so they can have their boats home well before the sun goes down.

Ann McGuire isn’t one of those. Dessert isn’t her forte. And though in five years she has only once been assigned this stage (the year previous), three days before the dinner, she and her husband, Reg, pulled desserts again. “I was totally caught off guard because I never thought I would get dessert. I had all the chicken wings prepped. I had all the pizza makings.” She planned to cook the wings ahead and the pizza under the broiler as the guests arrived. Ann’s other go-to is pork tenderloin skewers pre-grilled mid-morning the day of the dinner and served cold with tzatziki and pita bread. “I try to reduce the amount of work time so I can have more play time,” she says. Her solution this year was to order a couple of homemade pies from the local marina operator’s wife and to make a simple strawberry crisp. No sweat.

Boats tied to the dock
Photo by Liam Mogan

By now that’s a common theme, and I wonder if the name of the event should be the “Travelling Mystery Keep-It-Simple-and-Fun-Dinner.” Because fun it has been. And staying chill about hosting is the key to success. As Karen Phillips puts it, “Nobody’s coming to judge you on your housekeeping skills. Just clean the bathroom, and pick the underwear off the floor.” Words to live by.

Penny Caldwell is a Georgian Bay cottager and the former editor of Cottage Life. This story originally appeared in the Mar/Apr 2019 issue of Cottage Life magazine as “Party of 40.”

Sober Boating Rules

How do the Woods Bay mystery diners navigate the issue of safe boating and drinking? As islanders, they’re experienced boaters, and taking responsibility for safety on the water is a given. “It goes without saying,” says cottager Karen Phillips. The real surprise is that about 40 per cent of boating fatalities in this country still involve alcohol.

In Canada, as with other vehicles, driving a boat while drunk or high on drugs, including cannabis, is a criminal offence. You could lose your driver’s licence, face steep fines, and go to jail, not to mention critically injure yourself or someone else if you are in a collision.

Rules and penalties around consumption and transportation of alcohol and cannabis vary by province, so check. In Ontario, for example, your boat must have a permanent head, galley, and sleeping quarters and must be anchored or tied up to shore before anyone can drink alcohol onboard.—P.C.

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